Many corporations first emerged during the Industrial Revolution. They were formed to attract the investment needed to build factories and machinery. Therefore, their overriding purpose was to provide a return for their investors. During the Industrial Revolution, we fell in love with machines. They increased productivity, reduced the need for hard labour, and provided more affordable products.  Therefore, as they were the new wonder technology we designed our corporations to operate like machines.

Machine-like corporations are characterised by control.  Different parts are carefully synchronised to produce a standard and predictable output. To maintain control, work is very formalised, bureaucratic procedures are introduced, and decision-making is allocated to hierarchical levels of authority.  Tasks are grouped into functional departments, ensuring specialisation and division of labour, with lines of authority going to the top of the organisation to provide centralised control. Further controls are put in place with formal planning processes, budgets and audits. With their overriding goal of increasing shareholder value, our machine-like business corporations have clunked into action, scouring the land to hoover up the resources within their reach, whether natural, human, or financial, and convert them into profit through the production and sale of goods and services.

Society is increasingly viewing this type of corporate business as being unacceptable and unsustainable. Many corporates are finding their stakeholders, such as employees, customers, local communities, and investors, are demanding that this machine-like way of operating come to an end.  Our corporations are increasingly acknowledging that they must be part of the solution to societal challenges, such as climate change, species extinction, pollution, inequality, mental health issues, and more. Each of these societal challenges is complex in its own right, and they are now being recognised as interconnected, creating a metacrisis that is even more complex and difficult to address. Corporations today are also confronting a range of other challenges that are making their operating environment more difficult to navigate. These include digitalisation, artificial intelligence, resource scarcity, disrupted supply chains, inflation, the war for talent and more. With the confluence of these challenges, many leaders are now describing their operating environments as being VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

It is evident that today, in this fast-changing and increasingly complex world, machine-like organisations are struggling to succeed. Their leaders are being confronted with an ever-growing number of challenges that make their jobs progressively more difficult, often leaving them feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to turn. Imposter syndrome is rife.

In stable operating environments, machine-like corporations can be very efficient and generate a competitive advantage through leveraging economies of scale.  However, in the turbulent times we now live in, the control needed to make a machine-like organisation function efficiently is becoming its Achilles heel.  The machine-like corporation’s inherent bureaucracy and decision-making structure inhibit its ability to respond to changes and challenges we face.  Employees aren’t free to be creative problem-solvers. Functional departments become silos hampering co-creation.

As the metaphor of the machine loses its relevance in guiding the design and operation of our organisations, a new metaphor is beginning to take its place. It is the metaphor of the ecosystem.

Rather than seeing things as being fixed, separate and fragmented, ecosystem-like corporations see things as continually flowing, interconnected and whole.  They see change as a continuous natural process that cannot be managed but, instead, needs to be nurtured and cultivated. Ecosystem-like corporations seek to grow all types of resources, be they natural, human, or financial. They understand that the growth of one resource provides the conditions for the other resources to grow. They seek to sustain and regenerate the resources they use to create goods and services by ensuring that the resources are returned to the environment in a replenishing form. Profit is realised through society valuing and rewarding the work of the organisation. The ecosystem corporation uses a range of practices such as self-managed teams, personal inquiry, distributed and emergent leadership, organisational democracy, dialogue and listening to the organisation as it naturally unfolds its emerging purpose.

I believe transpersonal psychology can support our corporations in adopting the new emerging metaphor of the ecosystem. It is known as the fourth force of psychology as it includes and goes beyond the other three (psychodynamic, behavioural and humanistic).  Transpersonal psychology is known as a whole-person psychology (integrating mind, body and spirit) that seeks to help people grow beyond their ego and work with the complex interconnected nature of our existence with each other and the planetary ecosystem. All the other three psychologies have been applied in corporations to help them become more effective and efficient machines. To meet the needs of society today and future, we need our corporations to develop beyond the machine and embrace new ways of operating that succeed with complexity and turbulence. Now is the time to apply transpersonal psychology in our corporations to enable them to be part of the solution to the problems society is facing.
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